What the Dead Know

Have you discovered Laura Lippman yet?  I just finished reading her superb 2007 crime novel,  What the Dead Know, and I can’t say enough good things about it.  I think it would be a great choice for a book discussion.

Previously I’d read an earlier Lippman book,  No Good Deeds, the most recent entry in her Tess Monaghan private investigator series (it was published in 2006).  I enjoyed it — it was well written, with a strong sense of place (Baltimore) and sharply defined, interesting characters, plus a twisty, engrossing plot.  But it didn’t stay with me for long, and it didn’t prepare me for the complexity and power of What the Dead Know, which is not another Monaghan adventure.

What the Dead Know tells the story of two young girls who visit a Baltimore mall on a Saturday afternoon and mysteriously disappear.  The case goes unsolved for over 30 years — until a middle-aged woman is involved in a hit-and-run accident and when questioned by the police, suddenly reveals that she is one of the missing girls.  But is she telling the truth?  Where has she been, all this time, and what happened to her sister?  Maddeningly, the woman refuses to answer all of the questions that are put to her, and the people who are investigating the case — three police officers, including one who had tried to solve the mystery at the time the disappearance occurred; a social worker; and a lawyer — painstakingly pursue every clue that is offered to them as they try to learn once and for all what really happened.

What makes this such an involving story is the way it is told — from multiple points of view, flashing backward and forward in time — getting into the minds of many different characters, including the two sisters and their parents, as well as the investigators.  The voices of the characters are so vividly presented, and there is such a wealth of fascinating detail provided about times past and present that a reader can’t help but be caught up.

There’s a twist at the end that I certainly didn’t see coming — I wonder if you will…

As one reviewer put it, one aspect of the book that makes it so distinctive is the disturbing way it explores “different perspectives on the nature of grief.”  What a treat — I was expecting a fairly diverting but ordinary detective story, and what I got was a multi-layered psychological novel that I can’t stop thinking about.  Please read What the Dead Know — and talk about it.

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

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